What Challenging Yourself Really Means

first-5-icon-07Today, I will try to challenge you. As a young professional, I often hear key phrases like this when attending career info or advice sessions. Established professionals at some point always say how important it is to “Challenge yourself! Get out of your comfort zone! Do something that makes you scared.”

When I hear such words I usually think, “Okay, so network more and talk to intimidating people. Got it.” But what does challenging yourself really mean? I didn’t truly understand this concept until a very recent experience.

Because I speak a few foreign languages, including French, my colleague, Mariah Bastin, and I were asked to participate in a Skype session with an embassy in the capital of the Central African Republic, as part of a State Department program. What a great opportunity to practice my French and engage with others halfway across the world!

But I was not jumping up and down at the thought. When we initiated contact, I secretly prayed the coordinator would forget about us and that the opportunity would never come to fruition. I speak French, but man was I rusty. So, what if I couldn’t understand them? What if the connection was bad? What if they laughed at my terrible grammar? What would Mariah think of my French?

My stomach knotted every time I thought about it but, finally, the day came. I was a mess. I was anxious and sweaty. I felt unprepared. I was completely uncomfortable with the situation and was definitely pushed to my limits.

Then, we Skyped with an amazing group of students, journalists, and youth from a war-torn country with myriad problems who were hungry to learn about what we did at Govloop. They threw rapid-fire questions at us without holding back. And, yes, sometimes we had to ask them to repeat, due to the connection or our lack of understanding. But I ended up loving every second of it. Even though I was so scared of failing, stumbling along the question and answer session made me realize that this is what challenging myself is really all about.

I had to struggle during the process, put myself out there, and make myself vulnerable. After all was said and done, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It even reminded me how much I love speaking foreign languages and practicing in international settings. Had it been up to me, this Skype session would never have happened. But I’m so glad that it did.

That’s what challenging yourself is all about. It’s about doing the things and taking on opportunities we would never think of doing ourselves. It’s about doing the anxiety-provoking things that make us say “glad that’s over.” But when all is said and done, we say, “Wow, I’m glad I did that.”

This isn’t just work out a little longer, write a bigger paper, or take on a new project challenge. This should be a get-ready-to-stretch yourself to your limits opportunity. Here are a few recommendations for how to really challenge yourself personally and professionally:

  • Take a class. But this time, don’t do it in something you love. Try something you know you’re not good at. Is it foreign languages? Writing or even – gasp – math? We often limit ourselves from so much opportunity because we’re too scared to dive into areas where we’re weak. There are plenty of classes you can take, whether online or in-person to advance your career. Learn that it’s okay to struggle. You’ll be surprised at what you can learn on a professional and personal level.
  • Experience something new. Spending your time on the same old hobbies can be monotonous. I have a friend from college who makes it a point to do at least one cool new thing every weekend, whether it’s rock climbing, exploring a national park, or visiting an old ghost town. I remember conquering a 17-mile mountain with that friend. I hurt for days and it was something I would have never done on my own, but I had a blast. While most of us can’t commit to every week, try at least every month to do something completely out of the ordinary on a weekend.
  • Make it a point to be vulnerable. Whether it’s attending a networking event, asking your top-ranking boss for a coffee meeting, speaking in front of 200 people, or maybe even singing karaoke in front of a group of new friends, push yourself to do at least one thing a week where you feel like you’re exposed and completely uncomfortable. You’ll hate every minute leading up to that event. You’ll look for every excuse to get out of it. But if you could turn off those negative voices and say to yourself “I don’t have to be perfect at this,” you’ll be amazed at how much you can grow during such experiences.

We can’t always do the things we’re good at. Sometimes we need to take on the things we’re not so good at. It can be likened to learning a foreign language. One way or another, you have to practice. You will stumble, you will say something wrong, people may giggle, but at the end of the day, there’s no other way you can learn. It is simply part of the growing process.

Have I made you uncomfortable yet? If so, good. I hope we can all get out there more often and push ourselves so that we don’t avoid accomplishing dreams anymore just because they may be challenging.


For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial

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